Armed Agents of the State Shouldn't Be Enforcing Traffic Laws

Interactions between the public and the police should be kept to a minimum.


Police officers have difficult jobs, going up against murderers, rapists, muggers, thieves, and hardened traffic violators. 

Which of those groups doesn't belong? 

The question is especially relevant as protesters take to the streets over unaccountable, abusive policing. A majority of Americans now support police reform. And some of the most important reforms we could be enacting are changes that would simply reduce interactions between the public and armed agents of the state.

Cops pull over 20 million motorists a year—by far the most common form of police interactions with the American people. Those encounters occasionally end violently and tragically. Consider the cases of Darrius Stewart, Samuel DuBose, Philando Castile, and Maurice Gordon, all of whom were shot during routine traffic stops. Gordon was killed by a New Jersey state trooper just last month.

Those traffic stops often evolve into drug searches, which carry serious Fourth Amendment concerns. They also disproportionately impact black and Hispanic people. (Blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for drug offenses and 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for drug possession, though whites use drugs at comparable rates.) Those with fewer means are more likely to be fined, arrested, and shuffled through the legal system, notwithstanding the fact that they're less able to afford getting trapped in that cycle.

In Colorado and Washington, where marijuana has been legalized, search rates at traffic stops have dramatically declined, a testament to how often those arbitrary searches are tied to drug laws that have no impact on traffic safety.

But even traffic safety doesn't necessarily need to be enforced by the police. "Don't use a hammer if you don't need to pound a nail," writes economist Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution. "The responsibility for handing out speeding tickets and citations should be handled by an unarmed agency. Put the safety patrol in bright yellow cars and have them carry a bit of extra gasoline and jumper cables to help stranded motorists as part of their job—make road safety nice."

It's a worthy idea. But it'll be tough to get state and local governments to accept it. Police departments, many of them furnished with weapons fit for a battlefield, often act as revenue raisers for the cities in which they serve.

"A Police Executive Research Forum report on St. Louis law enforcement found that local governments within the county were using police to 'plug revenue gaps' by running up the number of traffic citations, which coincided with many low-level arrests," writes Derek Thompson in The Atlantic. "As one St. Louis County resident told the report's authors: 'It's no secret that a lot of these municipal police officers are only supposed to be revenue drivers for their cities.'"

Relieving cops from traffic duty isn't the only way to reduce police encounters with the public. Eric Garner died at the hands of New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo after Garner was approached for selling loose cigarettes. A Louisville cop shot Breonna Taylor during a no-knock drug raid. Taylor was not a drug dealer, but had previously dated someone who had been suspected of using her address to receive packages. Nevertheless, her killing was not unlike that of Osama Bin Laden's. She was shot 8 times after police broke into her home.

We could minimize such encounters just by having fewer laws. "Things like the war on drugs, they've given police officers multiple reasons to be present in [minority] communities," Reason's Zuri Davis recently told the Washington Examiner's Siraj Hashmi. That "gives rise to a lot more interaction—and negative interaction." If we want fewer innocent people to die at police officers' hands, we need to cut back on the encounters that keep spiralling into such deaths.